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The well-known, much-published, and tenured expert in her field is the teacher we all hope to get in class. But she might not be the best.

A recent study by researchers at Northwestern University found that non-tenure-track lecturers at that school were superior to tenure-track faculty at spurring first-year students to pursue further study in a topic—and in preparing them to get better grades in the follow-up class. The results were most pronounced among the least academically gifted students.

All of which has educators debating the results’ applicability to other colleges. Julie Sandell, BU’s associate provost for faculty affairs, says she finds the study intriguing, while noting several key differences between Northwestern and BU.

The Northwestern study’s subjects were mostly full-time lecturers, who, unlike professors, are hired exclusively to teach and are free from research or university service obligations. By contrast, BU has lecturers and non-tenure-track professors: people contracted to teach and do research, just like their tenure-track peers, but whose long-term employment hinges on continued renewals of their contract rather than tenure. They have the same pay and benefits as tenure-track professors, while lecturers earn less.

BU has an usually high percentage—about half—of professorial faculty who are non-tenure-track, Sandell says. The Medical Campus, for example, where she is a School of Medicine professor in the department of anatomy and neurobiology (and the recipient of the 2001 Stanley L. Robbins Award for Excellence in Teaching, MED’s highest teaching honor), eliminated tenure a quarter of a century ago. Meanwhile, lecturers are a growing percentage of teachers at BU and in academia generally. Just one-ninth of the BU faculty 20 years ago, lecturers accounted for one-quarter of the faculty in 2003 and one-third today.

Sandell is leading a University review of the working conditions and use of part-time faculty, most of whom are lecturers. Any recommendations will likely be made early in the spring semester. She spoke with Bostonia about the Northwestern findings.

Bostonia: Did the study results surprise you? Might the results be replicated here if somebody did a study like this?

Sandell: I was surprised. BU has not ever looked at the relationship between student performance and the tenure status of the faculty member. I think one factor is that full-time lecturers are dedicating their full effort and energy to teaching and tenure-track faculty members have many additional demands on their time. Number two, the incentives are arranged so that full-time lecturers’ continued employment depends on the quality of their teaching. They’re not being judged on their scholarship; they have very few service requirements. Third, many full-time lecturers have a passion for teaching. They don’t necessarily want to have a job where they’re expected to do scholarship and service. When you look at tenure-track faculty members, there are plenty who love to teach and are really good at it, but that’s not necessarily the passion that drove them into the profession. Their research is at least as strong a passion for many of them.

Is the Northwestern study something BU might want to replicate?

It’s something that probably could be done, but it would be a tremendous amount of work by people who are very scholarly in the statistical techniques used and the field of education to address the question as well as the Northwestern study. I think it would be a fascinating master’s thesis for somebody.

Is the rise of lecturers and non-tenure-track faculty in general a good thing?

This study is valuable because it says we should take a careful look at the way we use our instructional staff, from the tenured full professor who’s the world’s expert in his field to the one-term lecturer. This study suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have dedicated, full-time lecturers teaching those introductory courses. They can be very effective teachers.

The study said non-tenure-track faculty work under “challenging conditions.”

I would carve off our non-tenure-track professors from our lecturers. Our non-tenure-track professors have all the same rights and responsibilities as our tenure-track faculty. They teach the same classes; they have the same pay.

That is different from lecturers. For part-time lecturers, that’s where I think the environment is challenging, because they usually have a contract for one semester or year; they don’t have access to the full range of benefits that our full-time employees have. We’ve done a lot of work to bring our full-time lecturers into the fold in terms of benefits and treatment. Now our working group is discussing what changes we could recommend that would provide a better environment for our part-time lecturers.